Socrates on books and blogs... and the way forward
Long ago, Socrates described some second thoughts he had about the new and questionable technology called a "book". He thought it had several weaknesses. A book could not adjust what it was saying, as a living person would, to what would be appropriate for certain listeners or specific times or places.
In addition, a book could not be interactive, as in a conversation or dialogue between persons. And finally, according to Socrates, in a book the written words "seem to talk to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever."
It sounds as though he would have preferred a blog doesn't it?
I know these remarks seem funny in hindsight, seeing how books became our primary means of passing on information, but it's a valid point that Socrates was makes: Books are good for transmitting static content but real learning (i.e. the creation of new ideas) takes place in our connections and interactions - in conversation. And to me that's the magic of blogging - it's a completely open, transparent environment that helps us to connect, express and share ideas.
At least that's what I'd like it could be.. but it doesn't (yet) fulfil that promise. In fact weblogs are neither community friendly or conducive to good conversation, and there are others that think so too. Take this weblog for example. The really interesting stuff is not what I write, but the reactions to what I write - i.e. when other people take these ideas and argue for and against them, mash them up with their own ideas, or put them into a different or larger context. This eco-system of linked articles is the crucible from which the best stuff emerges.
And what about comments? At the moment a comment is a cul-de-sac. There's no way to get to know a commenter a little better, to see what other things they've commented on, or find interesting on other sites. It's hard to extend the conversation.
Socrates was right. The valuable stuff is in the connections and conversation - linked articles in our case, and the community of people who link to us and add comments. But when readers come to this or any other website they don't see this, they just see one perspective (mine) and both the community and the wider conversation is pretty much invisible to them.
So, for me at least, the concept of blogging is brilliant but in practice it falls way short - blogs tend to fracture conversations, there's very little transparency and it's difficult to build a real sense of community. This might partly explain the huge rise in popularity of the new social network applications like MySpace, LinkedIn and Facebook - they provide the community and conversation we so enjoy. But I for one, don't want to create content within a 'walled garden'.
But the good news is there's a way of resolving these issues.. a way of making blogging not just a platform for self-publishing but great for hosting open conversations and building a community too. My business partner, Dave McNally, and I are working on it right now. We hope to show you something soon.
Credits: the illustration is called "Socrates and His Students" from an early 13th century Syrian book, Mukhtar al-Hikam wa-Mahasin al-Kalim (translated: 'Choice Maxims and Finest Sayings').
.. Open systems usually have a stability and ease that just feels right. Finding and sharing information is simple, and interacting with each other is natural. Contrast this with how things work in some of the most popular social network applications. Most of the content is invisible to Google or other search engines, and we're forced to play God each time we're asked whether to accept xxxxx as a friend or not! That's just not how it works in the real world is it?
.. It's only when a system is open that we get the benefits of emergence, adaptation and self-organisation - common attributes of complex systems. Something that can't really be said for the 'walled garden' nature of social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook et al. The web itself is just that - an open social network.. and it's only when we introduce proprietary technology, or attempt to ring-fence users, that we cut ourselves off from these three life giving properties found in all living systems.
.. For sure, you could follow trackbacks and pingbacks but there's only a portion of blogger's use these and few readers have the time to follow these links. You could also go to Technorati or Bloglines, but there again, very few seem to have the time or inclination to do this.